A damning report has this week revealed the “disgraceful” conditions at Bedford prison that led up to last year’s full scale riot.
It details how some inmates had no soap, toilet paper or even pillows and were living in cold, cramped and cockroach-infested conditions.
Crippled by staff shortages, running on half the amount of officers it should have, the prison was locking inmates in their cells for up to 23 hours a day.
“This was not treating prisoners fairly. The anger boiled over...” said the report, which was published by the Independent Monitoring Board.
In the year before the riot there had been 219 violent incidents at the prison, with 74 of them involving prisoners attacking staff. There had also been 332 self-harm incidents and a string of deaths in custody that totalled seven times the national average.
Meanwhile drug tests have shown that almost half the inmates are using illegal drugs.
But the IMB blames the system rather than the prison itself for most of the problems.
The report states: “Prisoners have been let down badly by the inability of the Ministry of Justice and Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service to put in place a recruitment and retention framework that provides a sufficient and consistent level of staffing and therefore a proper and reliable regime.”
In early November 2016 just 55 out of the full complement of 110 officers were available, leading to a “severely restricted” regime with inmates missing medical appointments and educational courses, said the IMB inspectors.
They had to decide whether the prisoners were treated humanely. The report states: “Prior to the riot of November 2016 the answer was no. The inability to provide basic items such as soap, cleaning materials and toilet paper was a disgrace.”
It adds: “At one stage prisoners in A wing had to wait four weeks for letters to be sent home because of a shortage of envelopes. New prisoners did not always have pillows. There can be no excuse for this.”
The inspectors are happy that improvements have been made since the riot, but question whether this can be sustained once the jail is back its full quota of prisoners.
They say conditions in a Victorian prison will always be challenging, and praise one prisoner who has spent time redecorating the “rather dreary environment”.
But some areas are very cold in winter due to the inadequate heating system, while pigeons pose a big problem and cockroaches are “in regular evidence”, states the report.
The IMB is now urging the government and prison service to make a series of improvements before the next annual monitoring.
Meanwhile the prison has a new governor, Helen Clayton-Hoar. She declined to speak to the T&C, referring us instead to the Home Office.
Andrew Neilson, Director of Campaigns at the Howard League for Penal Reform, said: “This highly critical report lays bare the factors behind the riot at Bedford in 2016. As the monitoring board say, there can be no excuse for failing to make basic items such as pillows and toilet rolls available.
“While there have been welcome improvements at the prison in the aftermath of the riot, it is clear that systemic problems around chronic understaffing and rises in deaths and violence will not be solved without radical reform of the wider prison system. Spending time at Bedford prison, and many prisons like it, will make someone more likely to commit crime, not less.
“Action to reduce the number of people in prison is key to stabilising prisons and allowing the system to focus what resources it has on improving safety behind bars.”